A celebration of the longest day

There are two very important times of year in Sweden. One is the time of longest dark, and the other is the time of longest light. Both are celebrated with eating, drinking (and drinking), good company and the playing out of traditions that have long outlasted explanations. And, generally, joy.
We’ve been marking the lengthening of days for some time now, noticing that when we’re walking home late/early at night that the sun never properly sets, leaving the sky a hazy blue even down here out of sight of the Arctic circle. As of last week the balance tipped, and from now on the darkness with get darker and longer until we won’t be able to imagine relaxing in the sun on our balcony at 10:30pm.
A sad thought indeed. However before we and the rest of Sweden let ourselves dwell on that we all have a celebration. The day of longest light*, in which we eat, drink, enjoy good company, dance and admire a large somewhat phallic pole.

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

Midsummer! Or to be more precise, Midsummer’s Eve. Being the good little Swedish residents that we are, we had a picnic planned at Slottskogen, where we had celebrated the day last year. Loaded up with food, drink and a bbq we met our friends at the park and were soon settling in for an afternoon of merriment. There was cider, the lighting and subsequent going out of the bbq, napping in the sun and eating, which are fairly typical of any picnic. Slightly atypically for us, more or less the whole picnic was also in Swedish, which was the lingua franca between us and our Czech friends.
As we chatted and ate, the sun played hide and seek above us and we joked that the Summer had finally arrived during the warm patches of sunlight, and was replaced by Autumn as the clouds covered the sky. By looking to the north we could even see if we might get another moment of Summer and once past watch as it eventually drifted over the horizon. Though it had been nicer last year, we reminded ourselves in true Göteborsk fashion that it could always be worse.

After a few hours had passed, people began to gather around the garlanded pole set in the middle of the grass. Closer up we could see the two loops hanging from the cross piece, yellow and blue flowers tucked among the green foliage. Our attention was soon taken by the movements of the crowd, who began to spin in circles, some with three people and some with as many as 40. On a stage fiddlers, flutists and singers called out instructions and belted out the traditional songs. Among the crowds people in traditional costumes lead the dances, demonstrating the claps and kicks and leading their circles in twisting snake like lines, all while singing along. Many of those not in costume also seemed to know the words, and I can only assume that part of every Swedish child’s education involves learning the song about the drunk shoemaker, the one about the various pigs that you and I are, how to clean the house before going to church and of course the frog song.

Dancing crowds

Dancing crowds

I asked my mum about this, and her response would have been matched by everyone else on the field, which was that of course we sing songs about animals and drunk shoemakers. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, when we forget about the staidness of everyday life and give ourselves over to dancing, laughing and making fish noises. That is tradition after all; something we do as a group, that defines us and keeps us together, despite whatever silliness anyone else may think about it.

The young folk dancers leading the way

The young folk dancers leading the way

After at least an hour the dancing was over and the professionals took to the field. Most looked to be over 60 but were as spry as anything, and definitely knew what they were doing. They twirled, skipped and clapped to the applause of the crowd, with steps that I hope they’ll pass on to the other, younger costumed folk. There were no songs about animals, but rather folk jigs and reels that got your foot tapping and conjured images of an idyllic and possibly imaginary rural past, all green fields, mooing cows, clean kirtles and neatly ordered hedges.
As we had watched, we found a couple of friends in the crowd and spent the rest of the long patch of sunlight chatting and enjoying icecream as the light began to fade.

Before too long it was time to pack up, but before we went home we paid a visit to the animals on the hill. The first that we saw was an elk, lying down by a fence and not looking all that well. We were amazed as usual by its size and strange combination of elegance and ungainliness. We also saw the deer, ducks, swans, geese, goats and ponies, most of whom seemed to be trying to get some sleep despite the light and visitors.
As 9:30 passed and a sunset bloomed overhead we headed to the tram stop, hugging and waving our friends goodbye before stepping on our own tram and making our way home.

Another Midsummer’s Eve done, half the year has past and the lengthening of days has begun, at least until the next tipping of the balance in the dark of winter.

*Technically the celebrations don’t always take place on the solstice, and the dates are adapted each year to make a long weekend. It’s usually within a week of the solstice though.

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A mid-Autumn weekend dream

Quiet recovery

Every now and then you get a weekend that seems to meld into one long day in which you barely get a chance to come up for air before you are off again.
Case in point: last weekend.

Sometimes you go to a party that combines great company, a lovely setting, delicious food and getting just tipsy enough to wobble but not enough to fall over.
Case in point: last weekend.

Every so often you plan an event on the spur of the moment, rush the prep while hungover and it still turns out wonderfully.
Case in point: last weekend.

The old belfry

The old belfry

My weekend started with a morning run, trying to time my steps to Don’t Stop Me Now and the Buffy musical soundtrack and not get thrown off by tolling from the old belfry as I crossed the river. It passed into breakfast and preparations for the day at weekend speed (approximately .25 of weekday speed) and then picked up tempo when the actual reality of time passing began to set in. Baking ensued, biscuits and bread, and they were still hot and steaming when our lift arrived.

As the bbq wasn’t mine, and I don’t know the people well enough to presume, I’ll just say that everything was wonderful. As with another party at the home of a Swede on New Years, the organisation was seamless and we as guests happily slipped along through the courses and after an impromptu piano performance worked out how to open the whiskey cabinet.
And the night would not have been complete without learning a new word – skamkudde (literally shame-pillow) which is how you feel when trying to avoid watching someone being humiliated – and being treated to impressions of Minecraft-gubbar by 5 year old boys.

By the time we got home and collapsed it was about 4 and before too long, or so it seemed, we were up again and making preparations for our own party. I had thrown out the suggestion on Friday that we ought to use the final days of sun and have a picnic somewhere scenic. Murphy’s Law being what it is, we awoke to news that Sunday was forecast to be rainy and cold and so quickly changed the plan to an indoor picnic.
A dash to the shops and shuffling of furniture later, and very importantly a playlist on Spotify chosen, our first guests arrived and the party was on.
A few hours later the last guest left and silence fell, unbroken by the need to bake, cook or do anything preparational.
Of course the next day I had an exam, and then there were lessons to prepare for classes, and work to get ready for and the weekend to basically get its act together and pull us under again.

Quiet recovery

Quiet recovery

But for a little while I was in a car on the highway heading home, my head resting tipsily on my partners shoulder and Håkan singing something nostalgic from the stereo. Unlike my Swedish friends, I may not have grown up with him, but now I can say that I have my own Håkan memory. And it is one to treasure.

Happy tipsiness as I lean on my partners arm and listen to En Midsommarnattsdröm.

A Midsummer Eve’s picnic

I believe I often mention here how much I have grown to appreciate the passing of the seasons and the depth and endurance of the festivities that mark them. Last Friday I got yet another example, as I ate, talked and briefly danced my way through the longest day of the year.

As with Jul, most people in Sweden visit their families for Midsummer, heading off to remote towns or across the country for a few days of eating and catching up. Friends of mine with Swedish partners began disappearing days before, while those of us left in Göteborg cast around for a way to join in the celebrations. Somewhere my partner and I had heard about traditional festivities in a large park in the centre of town, and while I had heard it was mostly for the benefit of non-Swedes, it seemed like a nice way to get into the spirit.

A maypole

A maypole

My partners’ parents were still in the country so we arranged to have a picnic with them. The feast included sill (pickled herring), baby potatoes, mushroom and cheese pie, fruit, salad, chicken kebabs and lingon sauce. Plus cider and beer of course. Combined with the sun and company it went down extremely well, so much so that we somehow forgot the strawberries, which are an essential part of midsummers eve.

Midsommarafton feast

Midsommarafton feast

As the day drew on people began to gather around the maypole and a stage, joined by folk in traditional costumes. We wandered over to have a look, and through the crowd managed to see heads bobbing up and down in time to the folk music being played on the stage. Soon the folk dancers stopped and the crowd began to change shape, opening up into circles and pushing spectators into clumps. Without much warning the circles began to bounce and twist around, holding hands and singing along to the band on the stage.

Flower crowned dancers

Flower crowned dancers

It was extremely infectious and only my shyness held me back from joining in. The various dances, including the infamous frog dance and something about washing clothes before going to church on Sunday took about an hour, in which I wandered around dodging dancers and enjoying the atmosphere. Right at the end I was spotted by a friend, who called me over and then pulled me into their circle of cheering and kicking strangers.

Dancing around the maypole

Dancing around the maypole

After the crowds had dispersed we decided to move our picnic to that of our friends, including a few Swedish people who were able to explain a bit more about the traditions and even tried to teach us traditional songs. We ate strawberries and cake and time passed. In time it began to get a bit chilly, but no less bright, and my partners parents left.

Soon after one of our friends marked out a rare empty space on the grass and began setting up small wooden blocks. The blocks were part of an old game called kubb, that we were told dates from the Viking era. The aim is to knock over your opponents blocks with wooden batons, and then knock over the king, which stands in between the two rows of blocks. Easy said than done! Despite looking simple it took a lot of strategy, not to mention good aim, though in the end the ladies team prevailed. Twice. Not that we made a big deal about it, of course.

The game goes on

The game goes on

After this we continued to relax as the sky gradually became darker, till at around 11.30 we decided to warm up in a nearby bar. When we eventually left the bar the sky was thick with clouds, and just dark enough to make out one star in a small gap, the first we’ve seen in a long time.

The rest of the weekend felt like Boxing day, with most of the shops and cafes closed and the streets deserted. Today the country returned to normal, though somewhere, in sheds or storerooms, maypoles of all sizes wait for next year, when the weather will hopefully be as clear and sunny as that on our first Midsummers eve.

A party in Göteborg

In the week that we’ve been back, we were lucky enough to be part of a great national event here in Göteborg. An event that had about a 10th of the cities’ population singing and cheering, lining the canals and having picnics on rooftops. People spent the day in costumes and sang in public and the sound of the celebration and the fireworks of the finale reverberated around the city.

No, I’m not talking about Swedish National Day. I’m talking about a concert performed by someone who may not be known outside of Sweden, but is adored in his homeland – Håkan Hellström.
Brief backstory for those not in Sweden – Håkan Hellström is a rock/pop musician from Göteborg who was a drummer and bassist in a couple of Swedish bands before he decided to go solo and has since released a number of records, all in Swedish. Months ago a concert was announced in Ullevi, the biggest stadium in the city, and sold out pretty quickly. I heard snippets about it from Swedish friends who were either going or wished they could go, but it wasn’t till I saw fans in sailor outfits wandering around the city, overheard people singing his most famous song in a park and heard that the venue had reached a record breaking capacity that I realised how important the event was for a decent percentage of the population of Göteborg.

Relaxing by the canal

Relaxing by the canal

My partner works in a building near the stadium which has a balcony, so our plan was to view the concert from high above. (Unfortunately we couldn’t get access to the top floor, but at least we know more for next time) We set off from our apartment with a bottle of wine and some glasses, just in case, and strolled along the canal that leads to the stadium. From the moment we stepped outside our apartment we could hear the concert, and as we got nearer it got louder, covering the screams from Liseberg and the rush of traffic. The volume of Göteborgare also increased as we got closer, from people sitting on benches with picnics, or on the grass lining the canal, standing around with their arms around each other or sitting on the wall of the canal, feet dangling down above the water. The rooftops nearby had new residents, and the road near Ullevi had been closed off and was packed with people singing along or just standing and smiling. It was a city celebrating and vicariously sharing a few hours of music. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The contrast to the concert was National Day, which seems to have been popularised within the last few years and the mention of which was greeted with ‘what? Oh yeah, that thing’ from the Swedes I questioned about it. Hoping to get some sort of cultural experience, even if it was manufactured, we headed to Slottskogen on Friday, to listen to the orchestra and watch some folk dancing. Unfortunately the weather didn’t seem to have realised that it’s summer so it poured from the moment we stepped outside. While I do love a bit of Ode to Joy, standing in a crowd feeling the rain seeping through your jacket is not the ideal way to enjoy it.

Orchestra in the rain

Orchestra in the rain

The folk dancing seems to have been rained out (though why they weren’t more prepared baffles me – I take it they of all people would know they are in Sweden), though I did enjoy the costumes.
Speaking of which, a question for readers: Does anyone know why ‘folk’ outfits seem to date from the 17th centuries? Why not the 14th, or 19th? I suppose the equivalent nowadays would be a suit or cocktail dress.
There were of course crowds of people at the National Day celebrations, and those who can stick around in the rain must have some good reason to do so. However I didn’t get the same feeling of love as at the concert the next day. Perhaps people have to decide what to love.

Prior to checking out the concert, we had a picnic in a park, a long and relaxing affair in which we ate, drank, talked and I got slightly sunburnt. Now that summer is beginning to show its face I hope it stays for longer.

Picnicing in summer

Picnicing in summer

Life has otherwise been settling down to the usual routine, or classes and chores, looking for work and another apartment and reconnecting with friends. The holiday in Australia is passing away and life is returning to normal, back in step with the city around us.